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History of Baseball

Early History

The story of the origin of baseball depends on who you ask. The simplicity of the game means that many variants grew from "stick ball", a child's game revolving around hitting a ball with stick which has been long known, through a number of other early stick-ball-and-bases games, such as one old cat. In addition, many of the game's early players were familiar with cricket. According to a Special Commission appointed in 1907 at the behest of Albert Spalding, a former player, administrator and sporting-goods manufacturer, to decide the issue, the first codified rules of baseball were devised by Abner Doubleday, of Cooperstown, New York, in 1839. Nevertheless, newer inquiries have cast serious doubt on the reliability of the commission's main witness and on Colonel Doubleday's presence in Cooperstown in 1839.

What is undeniable, however, is that shortly after this date, the first organized baseball clubs began to be formed in the eastern United States. The first to play baseball under modern rules were the Knickerbockers of New York City. The club was founded on September 23, 1845, as a social club for the upper middle classes, and was strictly amateur until its disbandment. The club members formulated the "Knickerbocker Rules", which in large part deal with organizational matters but which also lay out rules for playing the game. One of the significant rules was the prohibition of "soaking" or "plugging" the runner; under older rules, a fielder could put a runner out by hitting the runner with the thrown ball. The Knickerbocker Rules required fielders to tag or force the runner, as is done today, and avoided a lot of the arguments and fistfights that resulted from the earlier practice.

Writing the rules didn't help the Knickerbockers in the first competitive game between two clubs under the new rules, played at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, Jew Jersey in (date), 1846. The self-styled "New York Nine" humbled the Knickerbockers by a score of 23 to 1. Nevertheless, the Knickerbocker Rules were rapidly adopted by teams in the New York area and their version of baseball became known as the "New York Game" (as opposed to the "Massachusetts Game", played by clubs in the Boston area).

Professionalism and the rise of the Major Leagues

The popularity of the game spread across the northeast US in the following years. Both the New York and Massachusetts games had staunch adherents at first, but the New York game became more popular after the formation of the National Association in 1857. A rival organization for the Massachusetts game appeared also, but its popularity faded and the New York game survived to evolve into the game we know today.

Furthermore, the American Civil War saw the game played in the camps of both armies, and helped the game's progress further afield. By 1865 91 clubs were represented in the National Association of Base Ball Players, from as far west as Kansas. At this time all the clubs were amateur, but in 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings declared that they would henceforth be a professional side, and within 10 years professionalism was thoroughly established.

In 1870, a schism formed between professional and amateur ballplayers. The National Association split into two groups. The National Association of Professional Base Ball Players operated from 1871 through 1875, and is considered by some to have been the first major league. (Other researchers dispute this.) Its amateur counterpart disappeared after only a few years.

The professional National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs, which is still extant, was established in 1875 after the National Association proved ineffective. The emphasis was now on "clubs" rather than "players". Clubs now had the ability to enforce player contracts, preventing players from jumping to higher-paying clubs. Clubs in turn were required to play their full schedule of games, rather than forfeiting games scheduled once out of the running for the league championship, as happened frequently under the National Association. A concerted effort was made to reduce the amount of gambling on games which was leaving the validity of results in doubt.

At the same time, a "Gentleman's agreement" was struck between the clubs which had the effect as to bar non-white players from professional baseball, a bar which was still in existence until 1947. It is a common misconception that Jackie Robinson was the first African-American major-league ballplayer; he was actually the fourth. The other three, however -- Bud Fowler, Fleet Walker and his brother Welday Walker -- were unceremoniously dropped from major and minor-league rosters in the 1880s, and it was not until Robinson's emergence that baseball would begin to correct this.

The early years of the National League were nonetheless tumultuous, with threats from rival leagues and a rebellion by players against the hated "reserve clause", which restricted the free movement of players between clubs. Competitive leagues formed regularly, and also disbanded regularly. The most successful was the American Association (1881-1891), sometimes called the "beer and whiskey league" for its tolerance of the sale of alcoholic beverages to spectators. For several years, the National League and American Association champions met in a postseason championship series -- the first attempt at a /World Series.

The Union Association survived for only one season (1884), as did the Players League (1890), a fascinating attempt to return to the National Association structure of a league controlled by the players themselves. Both leagues, however, are considered major leagues by baseball researchers due to the high caliber of play (for the time) and the number of star players featured.

One competitive league, the American League, did survive and in 1901 an agreement was signed between the two leagues which led, in 1903, to the playing of a "/World Series" between these two major leagues' champions.

The Dead Ball Era and the Black Sox

Why the Ball was Dead: At this time the games tended to be low scoring, dominated by such legendary pitchers as Walter "The Big Train" Johnson, Cy Young and Christy Mathewson, to the extent that the period 1900-1919 is commonly called the Dead Ball Era. The term also accurately describes the condition of the baseball itself. Baseballs cost three dollars apiece, a hefty sum at the time, and club owners were reluctant to spend much money on new baseballs if not necessary. It was not unusual for a single baseball to last an entire game. By the end of the game, the ball would be dark with grass, mud and tobacco juice, and would be misshapen and lumpy from contact with the bat. Balls were only replaced if they were hit into the crowd and lost, and many clubs employed security guards expressly for the purpose of retrieving balls hit into the stands -- a practice unthinkable today.

As a consequence, home runs were rare, and the "inside game" dominated -- singles, bunts, stolen bases, the hit-and-run play, and other tactics dominated the strategies of the time.

Despite this, there were also several superstar hitters, the most famous being Honus Wagner, still held to be the greatest shortstop to ever play the game, and Detroit's Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach. Cobb was a mean-spirited man, fiercely competitive and loathed by many of his fellow professionals but his career batting average of .366 is unlikely to ever be bettered.

The Merkle Incident: The 1908 pennant races, in both the AL and NL, were among the most exciting ever witnessed. The National League involved a bizarre chain of events. On September 23, 1908, the New York Giants and Chicago Cubs played a game in the Polo Grounds. Rookie first baseman Fred Merkle, later to become one of the best players at his position in the league, was on first base, with another runner, Moose McCormick, on third, with two out and the game tied. Giant shortstop Al Bridwell socked a single, scoring McCormick and apparently winning the game. However, Merkle, running toward second, instead ran toward the clubhouse to avoid the spectators mobbing the field. Cub second baseman, Johnny Evers, noticed this. In the confusion that followed, Evers claimed to have retrieved the ball and touched second base, throwing Merkle out and nullifying the run scored. The league ordered the game replayed at the end of the season, if necessary. It turned out that the Cubs and Giants ended the season tied for first place, so the game was indeed replayed, and the Cubs won the game, the pennant, and subsequently the World Series (the last Cub Series victory to date, as it turns out).

For his part, Merkle was doomed to endless criticism and vilification throughout his career for this lapse, which makes his later playing success even more remarkable.

New Places to Play: The first 20 years of the 20th century saw an unprecedented rise in the popularity of baseball. Large stadia dedicated to the game were built for many of the larger clubs or existing grounds enlarged, including Shibe Park, home of the Philadelphia Athletics, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in Brooklyn and New York, Boston's Fenway Park along with Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park in Chicago.

The Black Sox: Contrary what many of baseball's administrators believed, however, gambling was still rife in the game and the league's complacency during this Golden Age of baseball was shockingly exposed in 1919, in what rapidly became known as the Black Sox scandal. During the season the Chicago White Sox had shown themselves to be the best team in the leagues, and were the bookmaker's favourites to defeat the Cincinnati club in /World Series. The White Sox were defeated and throughout rumours were rife that the players, motivated by a mixture of greed and a dislike of club owner Charles Comiskey, had taken money to throw the games. During the following seasons the rumours intensified, and spread to other clubs, until a Grand Jury was convened to investigate. During the investigation two players, Eddie Cicotte and "Shoeless" Joe Jackson confessed and eight players were tried, and acquitted, for their role in the fix. The Leagues were not so forgiving. Under the commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, all eight players were banned from organised baseball for life.

The Negro Leagues

Although there had been African-American baseball teams since the 1860s, it was not until 1920 that the bar on black players in the major leagues finally resulted in the formation of stable "Negro Leagues". In that year, Rube Foster, a former ballplayer with a gift for organization, founded the Negro National League. The Negro Leagues produced many player of high quality, notably pitcher Satchel Paige, and catcher Josh Gibson, considered by some observers to be the most skilled hitter of all time. Exhibition games between all-stars of the Negro and Major leagues were a fairly common occurence.

The Bambino and the End of the Dead Ball Era

It was not the Black Sox scandal which put an end to the dead ball era, but by a rule change and a player.

Some of the increased offensive output can be explained by the 1920 rule change outlawing tampering with the ball, which pitchers had often done to produce "spitballs", "shine balls" and other trick pitches which had unnatural flight through the air. Umpires were also required to put new balls into play whenever the current ball became scuffed or discolored. This rule change was enforced all the more stringently following the death of Ray Chapman, who was struck in the temple by a pitched ball in a game in 1920 and died several days later. Discolored balls, harder for batters to see and therefore harder for batters to dodge, have been rigorously controlled ever since. A side effect, of course, is that if the batter can see the ball more easily, the batter can hit the ball more easily.

Still, in the past, rule changes favoring the batter had led to increases in batting average, but not to changes in hitting styles. The "inside game" might have continued to dominate but for the activities of one remarkable player. At the end of the 1919 season Harry Frazee, then owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold a group of his star players to the New York Yankees. (The story that he did so in order to fund his theatrical shows on Broadway is, apparently, unfounded.) Amongst them was George Herman Ruth, known affectionately as "Babe".

Ruth's career mirrors the shift in dominance from pitching to hitting at this time. He started his career as a pitcher in 1914, and by 1916 was considered one of the dominant left-handed pitchers in the game. When Edward Barrow, managing the Red Sox, converted him to an outfielder, ballplayers and sportswriters were shocked. It was apparent, however, that Ruth's bat in the lineup every day was far more valuable than Ruth's arm on the mound every fourth day. Ruth swatted an unprecedented 29 home runs in his last season in Boston. The next year, as a Yankee, he would hit 54 and in 1921 he hit 59. His 1927 mark of 60 home runs would last until 1961.

Ruth's power hitting ability demonstrated a new way to play the game, and one that was extremely popular with the crowds. By the late 1920s and 1930s all the good teams had their home-run hitting "sluggers": the Yankees' Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx in Philadelphia, Hank Greenberg in Detroit and Chicago's Hack Wilson were the most storied. Whilst the American League championship, and to a lesser extent the /World Series, would be dominated by the Yankees, there were many other excellent teams in the inter-war years. The legendary Connie Mack assembled a Philadelphia Athletics side that won the 1929 and 1930 championships, and the National League's Saint Louis Cardinals would win three titles themselves in nine years, the last with a group of players known as the "Gashouse Gang".

1933 also saw the introduction of the All-Star game, a mid-season break in which the greatest players in each league play against one another in a hard fought, but essentially meaningless demonstration game. In 1936 the Baseball Hall of Fame was instituted and five players elected: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner.

The War Years

The beginning of US involvement in World War II robbed the game of many players who joined the armed forces, but the major leagues continued play throughout. In 1941, a year which saw the premature death of Lou Gehrig, Boston's great left fielder, Ted Williams, had a batting average over .400, the last time anyone has achieved that feat. During the same season Joe DiMaggio hit successfully in an unparalleled 56 consecutive games. Both Williams and DiMaggio would miss playing time in the services, Williams also flying in the Korean War. During this period Stan Musial led the St Louis Cardinals to the 1942, 1944 and 1946 World Series titles.

Blacks return to the Major Leagues

In 1947 Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson and broke the colour bar that had been in place for 50 years. Robinson was an exceptional talent, although perhaps not the greatest in the Negro leagues at the time, and he also had the inner strength to withstand the racism and abuse, from both fans and players, that he had to undergo. He stood up to the pressure magnificently, and played well enough to win the inaugral "Rookie of the Year" award. Later that same year, four more black players made it to the majors. The following year, the 1948 major league champion Cleveland Indians featured Hall-of-Famers Larry Doby and Satchel Paige (who was still effective at 42, and still playing at 59). In 1997, Major League baseball retired Robinson's number, 42.

In 1951 Willie Mays joined the New York Giants. Mays, the "Say Hey Kid", was fantastically talented, an athletic center-fielder with a splendid throwing arm who could hit for power and average, and steal bases. 50 years after the start of his career, he is widely considered amongst the greatest to have ever played the game. In his rookie season he helped the Giants to win the pennant, a feat only accomplished by Bobby Thompson's homer against the Dodgers on the last day of the season, whose fame as "The Shot Heard Round The World" is due in no small part to Russ Hodges' commentary:

"Brooklyn leads 4-2 ... Branca throws, there's a long fly, its gonna be, I believe ... THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! Bobby Thomson hit that ball into the lower deck of the left field stands! The Giants win the pennant, and they're going crazy ... they're going crazy! I don't believe it! I will not believe it"

Baseball Expands and Moves West

Up to this time, major league baseball franchises had been largely confined to the eastern United States. The first team to relocate in fifty years was the Boston Braves who moved to Milwaukee in 1953. In Milwaukee the club set attendance records, and more teams moved: the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore, and the Philadelphia Athletics to Kansas City.

Most shocking, though, in 1958, were the moves of two of the New York teams, the arch-rival Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, who made the jump all the way to the West Coast, in Los Angeles and San Francisco respectively. They were joined in California by one of the first expansion teams in over 70 years, the Los Angeles Angels, in 1961 (soon the California Angels and now the Anaheim Angels) and the Athletics, who moved again, settling in Oakland in 1968.

The other 1961 expansion team was the Washington Senators, who took over the nation's capital when the previous Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. 1961 is also noted as being the year in which Roger Maris beat Babe Ruth's single season record home run record, hitting 61 for the New York Yankees, albeit in a slightly longer season than Ruth's. Expansion continued in 1962 with the addition of the Houston Astros and New York Mets to the National League.

The most recent team move was in 1972, when the second Washington Senators moved to Dallas and became the Texas Rangers.

Players Assert Themselves

From the time of the formation of the Major Leagues to the 1960s, when it came to the control of the game of baseball the team owners held the whip hand. After the so called "Brotherhood Strike" of 1890 and the failure of the National Brotherhood of Ball Players and its Players League, the owners control of the game seemed absolute and lasted over 70 years, despite the formation of a number of short-lived players organisations over that time. In 1966, however, the players enlisted the help of Trade Union activist Marvin Miller to form the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). The same year, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, both Cy Young Award winners for the Los Angeles Dodgers refused to resign their contracts, and the era of the reserve clause, which held players to one team, was coming to an end.

The first legal challenge came in 1970. Backed by the MLBPA St Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood took the leagues to court, citing the 13th Amendment and antitrust legislation. In 1972 he finally lost his case in the United States Supreme Court by a vote of 5 to 3, but gained large scale public sympathy and the damage had been done. The reserve clause survived, but it had been irrevocably weakened. In 1975 Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers and Dave McNally of theExpos played without contracts, and then declared themselves free agents. Handcuffed by concessions made in the Flood case the owners had no choice but to accept the collective bargaining package offered by the MLBPA, and the reserve clause was effectively ended, to be replaced by the current system of free-agency and arbitration.

While the legal challenges were going on, the game continued. In 1969 the Miracle Mets, just 7 years after their formation, recorded their first winning season, won the National League East and finally the World Series.

On the field, the 1970s saw some of the longest standing records fall and the rise of two powerhouse dynasties. In Oakland the Swinging A's were overpowering, winning the Series in '72, '73 and '74 and five straight division titles. The strained relationships between teamates, who included Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Reggie Jackson, gave the lie to the need for "chemistry" between players. (They also almost single-handedly reintroduced the mustache to baseball.) The National League, on the other hand, belonged to the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati, where Sparky Anderson's team, which included Pete Rose as well as Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan finally toppled the A's in 1975.


  • Aaron, Ryan, Rose and the Big Red Machine.
  • The streak
  • The strike (1981)
  • The strike (1994)
  • Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa go homerun crazy
  • the deeply tedious Yankee dynasty
  • Rickey thinks we should mention Rickey's achievements
  • Bonds tears up 2001?
  • The strike (2002?), or, what are these people fighting over, anyway?

An Essential Reading List

Bouton, Jim. Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing The Knuckleball in the Major Leagues. One player's diary of the 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots ISBN:0020306652
James, Bill. The Historical Baseball Abstract (1985, 1987, and new 2001 edition)
Ritter, Lawrence. The Glory of their Times (1966; first-person accounts of life in baseball, in the early 20th century)
Tygiel, Jules. Past Time: Baseball as History ISBN: 0195146042